The deadly attack and hostage crisis at a shopping mall in Kenya this weekend threatens to drag East Africa’s largest economy deeper into the war against al-Qaeda-linked militants in neighboring Somalia.
The death toll rose to 68 as the siege of the Westgate Mall in the capital, Nairobi, entered a third day. Somalia’s al-Shabaab militia claimed responsibility for the attack. It began at about midday Sept. 21 when 10 to 15 assailants burst through the main entrance, tossed hand grenades and opened fire before holding hostages in a standoff with security forces.
The attack fulfilled al-Shabaab’s threat to retaliate against Kenya for deploying troops two years ago in Somalia to support African Union peacekeepers and government forces fighting the militia. It threatens Kenya’s reputation as a beacon of stability in a volatile region that has made it East Africa’s hub for companies including Toyota Motor Corp., International Business Machines Corp., General Electric Corp., Google Inc. and the African headquarters for the United Nations.
“This is a stake through the heart of the new African middle class, and Westgate will shake the regional hub status to its core,” Aly-Khan Satchu, chief executive officer of Rich Management Ltd., a Nairobi-based financial adviser, said in an e-mailed reply to questions. “The Nairobi economy, which is 50 percent of Kenya’s GDP, is heavily dependent on multinational corporations and the economies of upmarket suburbs.”
Sporadic gunfire was heard at the mall this morning, after the Kenya police said last night a “major assault” had begun to end the hostage crisis. “Most of the hostages have been rescued and security forces have taken control of most parts of the building,” the Kenya Defence Forces said on its Twitter account.
Security forces have as good a chance “as we can hope for” to neutralize the attackers, some of whom may be women, as the authorities work to ensure the captives are freed unharmed, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta told reporters yesterday in the city.
More than 205 people were injured in the raid and 49 are missing, the Kenya Red Cross said yesterday on its website. While the government hasn’t disclosed how many hostages were in the mall, Nation TV, a Nairobi-based broadcaster, said yesterday there were 30 civilians still inside.
Kenya’s prestige has already been shaken by International Criminal Court indictments of Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, for their alleged involvement in crimes against humanity. The men are accused of organizing violence following a disputed election in 2007, charges both deny. More than 1,100 people were killed in two months of ethnic and political clashes.
Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth-busiest air hub, and the country may start producing its first oil next year after an commercially viable crude find by Tullow Oil Plc. The government is planning to issue its first Eurobond to raise between $1.5 billion and $2 billion by December.
The anarchy in Somalia that followed the removal of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 has given al-Qaeda a base to set up operations for eastern Africa. The Kenyan mall attack was the deadliest assault in the country since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in downtown Nairobi that killed 213 people, which the U.S. has said was organized by al-Qaeda.
Kenya’s 700-kilometer (435-mile) eastern border is unstable: from the south near the Somali port of Kismayo that’s in striking distance of its white-sand beaches, to the arid northeast, which has been hit by bombings, kidnappings and clan violence over politics, land and water.
“If the thought was this was to intimidate us, it has only increased our commitment to fight and to win this war,” Kenyatta said yesterday. “We shall not relent on the war on terror.”
The Kenyan authorities dispatched troops to Somalia in October 2011 after they blamed a series of kidnappings of foreigners and the murder of a British tourist in Kenya on al-Shabaab, which denied involvement. Tourism competes with tea and horticulture as the biggest source of the country’s foreign exchange. More than half a million mainly Somali refugees live in the UN-run Dabaab camp in northeastern Kenya.
At the time, the Kenyan army said it planned to end its intervention by that Christmas.
“In war, the exit strategy is always more difficult than the entry strategy,” Rocky Hitchcock, 65, a senior consultant for Nairobi-based KK Security said by phone yesterday. “If Kenya was to pull out of Somalia it means it is being dictated to by a terrorist group, it would be admitting defeat.”
Al-Shabaab has been fighting Somalia’s government since at least 2006. The militant group claimed responsibility in July 2010 for coordinated bomb attacks in neighboring Uganda that killed 76 people watching the soccer World Cup final at two venues. Al-Shabaab said it targeted Uganda because the country has troops serving in the African Union Mission in Somalia.
There are more than 17,000 African Union troops comprising 4,040 Kenyans, 850 from Sierra Leone, 6,223 Ugandans, 5,432 Burundians and 999 from Djibouti in Somalia, according to the AU Mission in Somalia’s website.
Kenyan soldiers helped to wrest control last year of the main southern port of Kismayo, which had been a key revenue generator for al-Shabaab, according to the UN.
“The issue of al-Shabaab is not only a Somali problem, it’s a regional one and we have to fight together,” Mohamed Ali Noor, Somalia’s envoy to Kenya, said yesterday in a phone interview from Nairobi. “As a region, we can’t give up trying until they are defeated.”